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Giambattista della Porta


(Giambattista della Porta)




1658 English Translation - "Natural Magick"

1558 - "Magia Naturalis,"  Book I-IV (Latin)

(Dr. Laura Balbiani)

Della Porta's Life

(Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist:  by Louise Ceorge Clubb, 1965)

Natural Magic and the Secrets of Nature

(Chapter 6 - Science and the Secrets of Nature, by William Eamon)

The Naming of the Telescope

(Edward Rosen, Forword by Harlow Shapley, Henry Schuman, Inc. 1947)

Giambattista della Porta, And his Natural Magick

(Derek J. Price - Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC - June 10 1957)

Giambattista della Porta

(Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica)


(Source: http://www.physics.wisc.edu/~shalizi/White/magic/magic.html)

Porta, Giambattista della
(Compiled by: Richard S. Westfall )

Giambattista della Porta (I538-I6I5)

(Provided by Samten de Wet)

De humana physiognomonia 
(Francofurti: Apud Joannem Weehelum & Petrum Fischerum consortes, 1591)

Giambattisa Della Porta's Comedy

La Trappolaria (1596)


Giambattista della (John Baptist) Porta (1535-1615), was a Neapolitan scholar of notable ability who had devoted great attention to the study of natural and physical science. Porta visited most of his known world to gather and perfect the knowledge utilized in his writings. His first work, "Magiae naturalis"- "Natural Magick" was first published in 1558 in "four" books (written, according to the author, "Porta, " when he was fifteen years old, - see "Preface To The Reader" in "Natural Magick"). It was later expanded to twenty books compended into one volume in 1584. In this form the book had a great vogue, being translated from the original Latin into the principal European languages, and republished in the Latin edition in many places for a hundred years. The translation presented here is the final compendium of his life's work, completed when he was fifty years old.

It is in fact a work on popular science, cosmology, geology, optics, plant products, medicines, poisons, cooking etc. Included are books on transmutation of the metals, not however confining transmutation to the alchemistical signification, but including chemical changes generally; distillation, artificial gems, the magnet and its properties; known remedies for a host of ailments; cosmetics used by women, fires, gunpowders, Greek fires including preparations of Marcus Gracchus; on invisible and clandestine writing.

In the treatment of these subjects Porta includes statements of the ancients from the time of Theophrastus and Aristotle, as well as the contemporary knowledge of his own time. The book on imitation gems is of interest, including the coloring of glass by metallic compounds, burned copper for the aqua marine, manganese for the amethyst, zaffre (cobalt) for the sapphire, copper and iron for emerald, etc. So also the making of enamels and their coloring for pottery are described in this book, this art in Italy being further advanced at this time than elsewhere except in China. The latest versions of his work were likely the greatest synthesis and analytical study of the works of the ancients to that point in time. The value this book gives the reader of the actual perspective of those early scientists and the way they perceived their known universe was as precious then as it is now. It should be remembered that few in Porta's time were free from credulity toward many marvels and superstitions which were inherited from the past and Porta's work shows that he was no exception, as much of the "marvellous" is found in his writings. On the whole, however, his information is definite and practical and his work is a good as could be expected of one not himself a practical experimenter or investigator, but a conscientious and scholarly student of literature, ancient and contemporary. This point is critical as it frees him of the certain prejudice a trained scientist may have given to different schools of thought. Therefore the reader is presented with a clear, unbiased view of the concepts, perception and achievements of a host of historically important scientists and philosophers through Porta's writings.

Giambattista della Porta

And his Natural Magick

(Derek J. Price - Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC - June 10 1957)

Most Delightful and browsable of scientific books, yet most valuable by virtue of its content and historical significance, Natural Magick was a best-seller from its first appearance.  The very title give an indication of the book's peculiar charm and durable popularity.  It gives also a warning to the modern reader that he must have his full historical senses about him if he is not to be misled by words and thoughts that have changed their fabric in three or four centuries.

When the first short version of this book was published in Naples in 1558, Elizabeth I was just ascending the throne of England, Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare had not yet been born, and the theory of Copernicus was but an unpopular guess based on insufficient evidence.  When the present English translation of the expanded book was published, just a century later, the intellectual group that was to become the Royal Society within the next few years was not yet formally organized but dispersed in Oxford and London, inconspicuous in the distress and disorder preceding the Restoration.

Perhaps the greatest importance of this Natural Magick arises from its being the only printed record of an evanescent and little known organization that was the first scientific society of modern times, progenitor of the Accademia dei Lincei (1600-1630), the Accademia del Cimento (1657-1667), and the Royal Society of London, and indeed all manifold groups into which science is now formally organized.

Giambattista della Porta (ca. 1535-1615) brought this group of men together, meeting periodically at his home in Naples and performing experiments and investigations there.  Imitating the many literary clubs then flourishing in Italy, they called themselves Otiosi (i.e., Men of Leisure) and made it a condition of membership that each man must have contributed a new discovery or fact in natural science.  Their Accademia Secretorum Naturae was soon suspect, from its name and deeds, of dabbling in the occult.  Della Porta was denounced to Pope Paul V and called to Rome to explain the reports of witches' salves and necromantic arts.  Happily justifying his devout search for truth and his campaign against charlatans, he returned cautioned but unblemished and was able, later in life, to help establish and become Vice-President of the Academy of the Lynxes (its name symbolised the struggle of scientific truth against ignorance), of which Prince Federico Cesi was President and Galileo the most illustrious member.

The first known edition of Magia Naturalis (Naples, 1558), containing only four "books," seems to have achieved an immediate popularity and was rapidly re-issued in at least five more Latin editions during the next decade and in translation in Italian (1560), French (1565), Dutch (1566), and in as della Porta tells in the Preface, also into Spanish, and Arabic!  Della Porta was a great lover of this foreign praise - the first edition of his book on distillation (Rome, 1608) carries dedication to della Porta in Hebrew, Greek, Chaldee, Persian, Illyrian, and Armenian.  This is perhaps a characteristic foible of della Porta.  Unfortunately there was another personal weakness or vanity that has thrown his biographers and historians into confusion:  He had a distinct tendency to embroider the truth a little by stretching a point here and and point there, so as to bring out the full wonder and marvel of the world, striving nevertheless to retain coherence and rationality of the whole.  He seems also to have strained some of his biographical data, claiming that he had been a child prodigy of but fifteen years of age when the first version was published, and that 35 years later, at the age of fifty (so it must be true!), he supplied the amplified version in twenty "books" - including then not only his won intensive observation but also the speculations and experiments of the Otiosi.

It has been admirably demonstrated by Rosen (Edward Rosen The Naming of the Telescope) that there is all good reason to think that della Porta was born in 1535, or, more exactly, between December 7, 1534, and July 6, 1535.  He was thus at least twenty-two when the 1558 version was published and we may therefore allow, as has long been pointed out, that in his youth he unduly emphasized his maturity but in later years retrospectively exaggerated his marvelous precocity.  Just possibly there is some justification in the author's claim.  If he had written and published a version, perhaps in three books only, by 1550, all difficulties would thereby be resolved, but nothing is now known about any such edition, and the 1558 printing gives no clue to its existence.

We know, however, that Giambattista (i.e., Giovanni Battista) had a remarkable childhood, composing essays in Latin and Italian by the age of ten.  he was brought up by a cultured and intelligent uncle and made the Grand Tour of Italy, France, and Spain in company with his brother Gian Vincenzo.  The Magia Naturalis was his first publication, followed five years later by an extensive and practical treatise on ciphers and teh art of secret writing, illustrated with three revolving disks to be used for coding and decoding (De furtivis Literarum Notis - Naples, 1563)

The greater part of della Porta's published work appeared during a later period of remarkable activity extending for 1586, when he wrote a book on human physiognomy, later used by Lavater, until after 1609, when his De aeris transmutationibus, dealing with meteorology, was printed.  During this fertile period he produced books on the design of villas, on refraction of light, on pneumatics, on astronomy, and on distillation, and in his Phytognomonica he set out the first ecological grouping of plants according to their geographical locale and distribution.  He wrote also on the rational background to astrology, while decrying the aberrations of judicial astrology, a subject reflected in Book 1, Chapter VIII of Natural Magick, an Ars reminiscendi, which suggested ways and means of aiding and systematizing the power of memory.  In addition to all this he wrote fourteen prose comedies, two tragedies, and one tragi-comedy.  His dramatic writings were not without recognition.  They provided an unacknowledged source of material for seventeenth-century English playwrights.

It was toward the beginning of this most active period that della Porta first published the full and expanded version of his book on "natural magic,"  including therein much new material of a real scientific character and omitting from the 1558 version some of the more blatant marvels.  One can see in it the influence of the discussions and experiments of the Otiosi, and there are reflections of all della Porta's other special topics of interest on which he had published separate books.  Entitled Magiae naturalis libri XX in quibus scientiarum naturalium divitiae et deliciae demonstrantur (Naples, 1589),  It went through at least twelve editions in Latin, four in Italian, seven in French, two in German and two in English.

The English translation, printed in London in 1658, was made anonymously.  Only the engraver of the title-plate, R [ichard] Gaywood (fl. 1650-1680), a prolific but inferior pupil of the famous Wenz. Hollar, being named in accordance with his artistic dues.  One may only regret that the artistry of the translator was not similarly honoured.  We know nothing of him, only that he did his job well so that although the book came out in English just a full century after its publication, it retained its freshness and had to appear again, being printed for John Wright in London in 1669.  The second English edition is now even more scarce then the first, whose soiled and damaged examples testify to the fact that it was used and worn out by the practical man and in the laboratory rather than being safely preserved on a library shelf.

The book contains many passages of particular interest in the history of science.  Those most often cited occur in the optical sections contained in Book XVII, especially in Chapter VI, where he gives a clear description of the Camera Obscura, with and without a lens, on the basis of which he has often, though erroneously, been credited with its invention.  The use of the lens is described only in the expanded version (1589) and had been anticipated by the Venetian nobleman Daniello Barbaro in his book La practica della perpettiva (Venice, 1569) and possibly even earlier by Cardano (in De subtilitate, 1550), though this description is not altogether clear.  In Chapter X, della Porta deals with the use of a combination of convex and concave lenses for viewing objects far off or near at hand.  This has led writers to credit him with the invention of the telescope and microscope, but it is quite possible that the vague description refers to a primitive bifocal lens for spectacles or to a doublet lens.  In an undated letter, della Porta himself claims to have invented the telescope before Galileo or any of the other contestants for that honour and adds that the very name "telescope" had been devised by Cesi, President of the Academy of the Lynxes.  For the latter part of this claim, Edward Rosen (The Naming of the Telescope) shows that one may reasonably conclude that the term was originally due to John Demisiani of Cephalonia and publicly unveiled by Cesi at a banquet in honor of Galileo on April 14, 1611.

Book VII, dealing with magnetism, is also of great interest.  In the proem is a clear hint of a sympathetic magnetic telegraph, and in its body one may find much to compare with William Gilbert's De magnete, first of the modern treatises of experimental science.  Gilbert, whose book appeared in 1600, made uncomplimentary references to della Porta, and the Neapolitan got his revenge in an interpolation in the expanded Italian translation of Magiae naturalis (Naples, 1611) in which he calls Gilbert an Englishman with barbarous manners "who took the whole seventh book of my Natural Magick and split it into many books, making some changes;....the material which he adds on his own account is false, perverse and melancholy; and towards the end he arrives at the mad ida that the earth is in motion."  Buy by then della Porta, once accounted a mild-tempered and pleasant man, was in a testy old age.

In spite of the valuable and useful chapters on perfumes and cosmetics, Giambattista was no fair company for ladies, as he shows by describing how to make some merriment by turning their faces red, green, or pimply and how jugglers and impostors burn hare's fat in a lamp and cause the women to cast off all their cloths and go naked.  He was a curious man in all senses of the word.

Natural Magick may seem a curious book, with its mixture of useful recipes, half-told half-truths, observations and experiments of the author and his band of Otiosi, and the quotations from classical writers, who are often challenged or cited by name when not quite believed.  It has more significance then that.  For the author, Natural Magick was the counterpart, and practical companion, of Natural History - magic because it was unencumbered by the artifices and instruments then becoming so widespread in the exact sciences of astronomy and mathematics, natural because it stood apart from and combated the fancies and irrationality of sorcery, hated and feared by the Christian world.

More than that, it is a pre-Baconian example of the scientific art of setting down in logical and orderly fashion (save for the final miscellany, delicately called Chaos) all that was known in the subjects under review and subjecting them to critical examination and comparison.  That the work was done not by one man alone but by the Otiosi, the first scientific society of our age, makes it of more than passing interest.  One can never dismiss it as a chance "precursor" or as the product of a capriciously remarkable man.  It is typical of its times and illuminates them trustworthily.

In form, of course, the book does not differ vastly from the many so-called "Books of Secrets" which were so popular in this nascent period at the middle of the sixteenth century and provide so useful a source for the history of chemical technologies such as distillation and metallurgy.  There is a long tradition of such books, stretching back to the later middle ages and taking something of their style for the richest source for them all, Pliny's Historia naturalis.  The function of this branch of scientific literature is of some interest.  Antedating the practice of contributing scientific papers to learned journals, it met the needs now filled by reviews and abstracts.  With the development of regular scientific journals shortly after this English translation was published, the Books of Secrets deteriorated to the collections of recipes and workshop notes which are their heirs.

There is another Magick in this book.  Whether read or dipped into haphazardly for pleasure, it can evoke vividly the plain-lands of late sixteenth-century science from which arise the mountain peaks of Galileo and the founders of the Royal Society and those other makers of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution.  It is unjust and misleading to commit the common error of considering these later men as starting from nothing and using reason and experiment alone to lay the bases of modern science.  Newton knew that he could see so far by standing on the shoulders of giants.  Let us not forget that the giants stood on the ground that had been measured out and roughly beaten by the curious and pleasurable Giambattista della Porta and his little group of amateurs of Science.

Derek J. Price, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. - June 10, 1957.

Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica

Giambattista della Porta was educated at home where discussions on scientific topics frequently took place. His father, from 1541, was in the service of Emperor Charles V and della Porta was well educated by private tutors. Charles V was Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain at this time and his empire extended across Europe to the Netherlands, Austria and the Kingdom of Naples.

Della Porta travelled widely in Italy, France and Spain always returning to his estate near Naples where he was able to study in peace. He never needed to earn a living as the wealth of the family seems to have been sufficient to allow della Porta to devote himself to study.

In 1579 della Porta moved to Rome and entered the service of Luigi, cardinal d'Este, and frequented the court of Duke Alfonso II d'Este at Ferrara. He also lived in Venice while working for the Cardinal. In fact he was one of a number of dramatists who worked for the Cardinal, like Torquato Tasso, the greatest Italian poet of the late Renaissance. Della Porta, however, also undertook scientific work for the Cardinal, making optical instruments for him while in Venice.

Della Porta's work was wide ranging and, having studied refraction in De refractione, optices parte (1593), he claimed to be the inventor of the telescope although he does not appear to have constructed one before Galileo.

Other topics he wrote on include cryptography in De furtivis literarum (1563), mechanics and squaring the circle. He was the first to propose adding a convex lens to the camera obscura. He described a steam engine in De' spiritali (1606) and he was the first to recognise the heating effect of light rays.

Della Porta formed a society, Accademia dei Segreti dedicated to discussing and studying nature, which had regular meetings at his home. This Society was closed down by the Inquisition about 1578 after they examined della Porta. In 1585 he joined the Jesuit Order but his support of the Roman Catholic Church did not prevent the Inquisition from banning publication of his work between 1594 and 1598.

Della Porta's major work is Magia naturalis (1558), in which he examines the natural world claiming it can be manipulated by the natural philosopher through theoretical and practical experiment. The work discusses many subjects including demonology, magnetism and the camera obscura.

Della Porta also published Villae (1583-92), an agricultural encyclopaedia and De distillatione (1609), describing his work in chemistry.


Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica

L G Clubb (LOUISE GEORGE CLUBB), Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist (Princeton, 1965).

G Paparelli, La Taumatologia di Giovambattista della Porta, Filologia romanza 2 (1955), 418-429.

3. H G Duchesne, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de J B Porta (Paris, 1801).

Internet Reference

(Source: http://www.physics.wisc.edu/~shalizi/White/magic/magic.html)

"...In Italy, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, came a striking example of the difficulties which science still encountered even after the Renaissance had undermined the old beliefs. At that time John Baptist Porta was conducting his investigations, and, despite a considerable mixture of pseudo-science, they were fruitful. His was not ``black magic,'' claiming the aid of Satan, but ``white magic,'' bringing into service the laws of nature - the precursor of applied science. His book on meteorology was the first in which sound ideas were broached on this subject; his researches in optics gave the world the camera obscura, and possibly the telescope; in chemistry he seems to have been the first to show how to reduce the metallic oxides, and thus to have laid the foundation of several important industries. He did much to change natural philosophy from a black art to a vigorous open science. He encountered the old ecclesiastical policy. The society founded by him for physical research, ``I Secreti,'' was broken up, and he was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul III and forbidden to continue his investigations..."

Porta, Giambattista della

Compiled by: Richard S. Westfall

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Indiana University

Porta, Giambattista della

1. Dates

Born: Vico Equense, 12 miles south of Naples, 15 Nov. 1535. Early sources have various years for his birth, but Paparelli establishes 1535 beyond doubt.

Died: Naples, 4 Feb. 1615

Dateinfo: Dates Certain

Lifespan: 80

2. Father

Occupation: Government Official

The modest fortunes of the Porta family, who belonged to the ancient nobility of Salerno, were improved when his father,Nardo Antonio, entered the service of Emperor Charles V in 1541. Note that the branch of the family to which della Porta belonged was not noble. However, his mother was from the patrician family Spadafora. Clubb speaks of the father's considerable wealth in land and ships. Vico Equense was the habitat of the wealthy, and the villa there meant wealth.

3. Nationality

Birth: Italian

Career: Italian

Death: Italian

4. Education

Schooling: No University

The nature of his formal education is unknown, but early accounts of his life suggested that he was self-taught. It appears more likely that his uncle (Spadafora) supervised his education. His informal education was the convivial discussion of scientific and pseudoscientific topics with the learned society that frequented his father's house. Only two of his teachers are known: Antonio Pisano, a royal physician in Naples, and Domenico Pizzimenti, a translator of Democritus.

5. Religion

Affiliation: Catholic

He was examined by the Inquisition about 1578, and he was forced to disband his Academy dei segreti. In 1592 all further publication of his philosophical works was prohibited. Apparently the ban did not include literary works, but he apparently did need prior permission. This ban was not lifted until 1598.

By 1585 he had become a lay brother of the Jesuits, and his participation in charitable works of both the Jesuits and the

Theatines in Naples demonstrates his devotion to the ideals of the Catholic reformation.

6. Scientific Disciplines Primary: Occult Philosophy, Astrology, Alchemy Subordinate: Optics, Mathematics, Meteorology

Porta was a polymath who dabbled in nearly everything. One could also list Natural Philosophy and Physics as disciplines. Porta's first book, published in 1585 as Magiae naturalis, constituted the basis of a twenty-book edition of the Magia naturalis published in 1589, which is his best-known work and the basis of his reputation.

His other published works include De furtivis literarum notis (1563), De humana physiognomonia (1586), Physionomonica (1588), De refractione optices (1589) and De distillatione (1610).

He perfected the camera obscura.

He wrote also on squaring the circle and on curved lines, as well as on hydraulic machines.

Della Porta formed a personal museum of natural history which helped to spur the concept of public museums.

7. Means of Support Primary: Personal Means Secondary: Patronage

Della Porta travelled extensively while he was young through Italy, France, and Spain. When he returned to Naples, he shut himself up in his villa and devoted himself to learning. He left a considerable estate. Is is not clear that he ever received a salary, though he did enjoy patronage and undoubtedly received gifts.

8. Patronage

Types: Aristocrat, Ecclesiastic Official, Court Official

Della Porta presented a copy of his book on cryptography, De furtivis literarum, 1563, to Philip II, and he dedicated the third edition of the early version of Magia, 1561, to Philip. In 1579, Cardinal Luigi d'Este invited della Porta to join his household in Rome. Della Porta accepted, moved to Rome, and supplied his patron with comedies. A bit later he went to the Cardinal's house in Venice and there made optical devices for him, including a parabolic mirror (so the sources claim). Then on to Ferrara. He was back in Naples in 1581, though still something of a client of the cardinal. It appears that the cardinal helped to save him from the Inquisition. Apparently the cardinal saw della Porta as an alchemist and hoped to get the philosophers' stone from him. Della Porta dedicated Physiognomia, 1586, to the cardinal. The cardinal died in 1587.

Della Porta dedicated De distillazione, 1608, as well as De aeris transmutationaibus, 1610, and other late works to his new patron, Federico Cesi. In the early years of the 17th century, Rudolf II sent his chaplain to Naples to contact della Porta, hoping apparently to get some alchemical secrets from him. Della Porta himself spoke of favors he received from Rudolf and to him he intended to dedicate his Taumatologia.

9. Technological Involvement

Types: Agriculture, Hydraulics, Military Engineering, Instruments, Pharmacology

He experimented and published on agriculture.

He published a book in 1606 on raising water by the force of the air.

In 1608 he published on military engineering.

He perfected the camera obscura.

He compiled remedies, some of which were published.

10. Scientific Societies

Memberships: Accademia dei Lincei, 1610-1615

He established the Accademia dei Segreti (or Academia secretorum naturae) some time prior to 1580. It met in his house in Naples, was certainly founded on the model of the earlier literary academies, and was devoted to discussion and study of the secrets of nature. It seems to have closed by order of the Inquisition.

In 1604 Cesi traveled to Naples and often visited Porta. In the same year Porta wrote a compendium of the history of the Cesi family. The documented meeting of Cesi and Porta in 1604 was followed by a respectful correspondence which culminated in the enrollment of Porta among the Lincei on 6 July 1610. In 1611 he helped to establish the Accademia degli Oziosi, a leading literary academy in Naples.


1.Gioacchino Paparelli, "La Taumatologia di Giovambattista della Porta," Filologia romanza, 2 (1955), 418-29.

2.-----, "La data di nascita di G.B. della Porta," ibid., 3 (1956), 87-9.

3.-----, "Giambattista della Porta: Della Taumatologia e liber medicus," Rivista di storia delle science mediche e naturali, 47

(1956), 1-47. R131.A1R62 Louise George Clubb, Giambattista della Porta, Dramatist, (Princeton, 1965).

PQ4630.P6Z53 P.A. Saccardo, "La botanica in Italia," Memorie del Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 26

(1895), 132, and 27 (1901), 87.

4.Pietro Capparoni, Profili bio-bibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal sec. XV al sec. XVII, 2 vols. (Rome,

1925-28), 2, 57-60. In the copy I have, vol. 1 is from the second ed, (1932) and vol. 2 from the first (1928). I gather

that pagination in the two editions is not identical.

Giambattista della Porta (I538-I6I5)

Provided by Samten de Wet

PO Box 15438, Vlaeberg, Cape Town 8018

"Seligmann, Kurt, 'The History of Magic'. Patheon, New York, 1948. I may have OCR scanned the text from an old paperback that had fallen to pieces."

Giambattista della Porta (I538-I6I5)    

p. 319

From the Renaissance, Porta inherited imagination, elasticity of thought and a taste for intellectual adventure. He stood upon magical ground and interpreted the world alchemistically; a few of his experiments, however, were of a scientific nature. To the camera obscura he added the lens, for which reason he has been called the father of photography. He also invented and described other optical instruments. Modern ophthalmology is indebted to him for his study of the human eye. Porta in his later years collected rare specimens of the animal, the vegetable and the mineral world and grew exotic plants in his garden. Travellers used to go to Naples to visit this private museum, one of the first of its kind, and also his botanical station. It is likely that Porta's activity inspired the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (I60I-80) to start his famous collection in Rome.

Porta's master, we read, was Arnold of Villanova. But the latter died in I3II, two hundred and twenty-seven years before Porta was born. Arnold's works probably did influence Porta since they contain items which reappear in the latter's book on Natural Magic, and both stress the importance of experimentation. Upon one point, however, the two physicians disagree completely, namely on the influence of the stars upon the human body, on man's features, his complexion and his destiny.

An article by Casey A. Wood (New York, I935) draws the conclusion from Porta's book, The Celestial Physiognomy, that the Neapolitan physician believed in astrology. Wood attributes this 'superstition' to the influence of the Church. But both assertions are erroneous. The Church by no means appointed herself a promoter of astrology, and in the book mentioned, Porta states repeatedly that neither complexion nor inclination derives from the stars but from man's humours: 'The ensemble of a constellation, the astrologers say, is like a painting whose force derives from the various colours. The heavenly aspect at man's birth will prescribe in him customs, habits and a disposition to certain diseases. Thus speak the astrologers; but things work differently, they do not derive from planets: we declare that they are caused by humours....'

But how are such humours produced? People who work hard, like those in the country, become dry and hot and sweat out their aquosity. They consume coarse food, as their parents did. Such habits cause their humours to develop in a different way from the humours of people who live quietly, who eat succulent meals, who relax often, whose humour will be more even tempered, more fluid, and whose skin is more tender. 'Man's form is a gift from heaven, not from the heaven of the planets but from God the creator who stamps and adorns the individual with his character. And this character or these features may be beautiful, splendid, majestic, because they are shaped in the image of paradise, of the angels, and finally of God himself in Whom resides the sum of beauty, splendour, and majesty....' Porta defends free will and possible development from the lower degree to the higher, for he knows several people of mean ancestry who have achieved wisdom and honour. There is no doubt that the Neapolitan physician was favoured by heaven. At six Porta wrote a composition in Latin and Italian. At fifteen he composed his three books on Natural Magic, a work which was reprinted many times and later amplified by him. In his youth he travelled with his brother in Italy, Spain and France, visiting the learned and conversing with them. Upon his return to Naples he founded, in 1560, the Academy of the Secrets of Nature, which Pope Paul V ordered to be closed. Porta was called to Rome to give an account of the society's activities. His explanations were accepted, for after this episode he was no longer molested. He wrote two tragedies and numerous comedies, of which one was still being performed on the stage in the eighteenth century, namely the Astrologer, presented in London in I773. A work on Curvilinear Elements is his contribution to geometry, also an architectural treatise and a book on hydraulics, works which certainly cannot be classified as magic.

His world image was, however, a magical one, like that of Pico della Mirandola, who at times also rejected astrology, while accepting other magical beliefs. Porta's system is a magico-spiritualistic metaphysics, which leads him constantly to conclusions of analogies between plants, animals and men. Similar humours are found in various apparently unrelated organisms. Plants and animals that correspond in shape are interrelated. A leaf formed like a stag horn shares the character of the deer. The horse is a noble animal, therefore it is a sign of nobility to walk erect with the head held high. Men who resemble a donkey are like that animal: timid, stupid, nervous. He who looks like an ostrich is akin to it in character: he is timid, elegant, vicious, stolid. A man who reminds us of a swine is a swine, eating greedily and having all the other characteristics, such as rudeness, irascibility, lack of discipline, sordidness, lack of intelligence modesty. In a similar way, men who look like ravens are impudent; those who resemble oxen are stubborn, lazy, irascible; men who have lips shaped like those of a lion are hearty, magnanimous, courageous; others who make us think of a ram are timid, malicious and humble. When practising medicine, Porta had many occasions to observe his patients, and to study their character and complexion; the results of this studious inquiry are laid down in his book Physiognomy, presenting a striking and convincing system, not to be lightly dismissed.

Porta's early experiments in physiognomy influenced the eighteenth-century philosopher, Johann Kaspar Lavater (I74I-I80I), who wrote many volumes on the art of judging men by their features. His elaborate system includes morphological, anthropological, anatomical, histrionical and graphical studies. Lavater quotes excerpts from Porta's books and inserts illustrations from the latter's work. About Porta's woodcut of a bovine face, the amiable Lavater remarks indignantly, 'Among a million men are there only two who approach the brute to such a degree? And suppose there existed only one individual of this type, how superior he would still be to the ox!'

Based upon the testimonies of antiquity, such as that of Pliny, Porta introduced into his theory the idea that some beings are mutually attracted, others repelled. Creation is built upon these two principles, which balance and unite all things. In his Natural Magic Porta, referring to these principles as disagreement and accord, says that 'some things are joined together as if they were in a mutual league, and others are at variance and discord among themselves; or they have something in them which is a terror and destructive to each other, whereof there can be rendered no probable reason.' He offers many examples of such mutual reaction. A wild bull tied to a fig tree will become tame through a sympathy which pervades the two beings in their very essence to such a degree that beef, boiled with fig leaves, will rapidly become very tender, a fact which according to Porta was known to Zoroaster. Such power can be used chemically, so that the milky juice of figs, together with other ingredients, is a remedy against the draught of the blood of bulls.

Many other wonderful things are described in Porta's book on magic. He asserts the frequently described marvel of animals being produced spontaneously from putrefaction. He describes the dangerous art of making bread heavier by increasing the weight of wheat and gives instruction for the counterfeiting of precious stones and for similar arts which his honest readers were undoubtedly most eager to learn. The chapter on physics contains items such as how to make a man mad for a day, or how to cause sleep with a mandrake. This chapter deals also with the art of causing pleasant and troublesome dreams. They are produced by making the subject consume beans, lentils, onions, leeks, garlic and the like. Special parts of Porta's work are devoted to distillation, fireworks, cookery, hunting and fishing, and other activities that render life agreeable.

For those having weak eyes, there are descriptions of convex and concave glasses and other optical wonders, and finally in a last chapter which he calls Chaos, he enumerates a few experiments 'which are set down without classical order'. One of them is the experiment with a lamp. We quote it in full so that the reader may test the incredibly marvellous virtue of a mare's excretion:

I much rejoiced when I found among the ancients that Anaxilaus the philosopher was wont to make sport with the snuff of a candle and the wick, and by such delusions would cause men's heads to look like monsters, if we may believe Pliny. But taking venomous matter that comes from mares newly having taken horse, and burning it in a new lamp, it will make men's heads seem like horse heads, and such like. I do not know whether this is true as I never tried it. But I take this for truth.

Thus ends Porta's book, and its conclusion contradicts somewhat its beginning, where he states: 'I shall observe what our ancestors have said. Then I shall show by my own experience whether they are true or false....'

Porta, Giambattista della

Phytognomonica. . .octo libris contenta: in quibus nova, facillimaque affertur methodus, qua plantarum, animalium, metallorum, rerum denique omnium ex prima extimae faciei inspectione quivis abditas vires assequatur: accedunt ad haec confirmanda infinita propemodum selectiora infinita propemodum selectiora secreta . . .Nunc primum ab innumeris mendis, quibus passim Neapolitana editio scatebat, vindicata.

Francofurti: Apud Joannem Weehelum & Petrum Fischerum consortes, 1591. Second edition--Cf. Johnston, S. H. Cleveland coll. Previously published in Naples. References: Johnson, S. H. Cleveland coll. 134. With: Porta, Giambattista della. De humana physiognomonia. Hanoviae: Apud G. Antonium, 1593.

Superior Plants and Animals

(p. 257 of Phytognomonica, Book IIII)

De humana physiognomonia . . . libri IIII: qui ab extimis, quae in hominum corporibus conspiciuntur signis, ita eorum naturas, mores & consilia (egregiis ad vivum expressis iconibus) demonstrant, ut intimos animi recessus penetrare videantur. . .Nunc ab innumeris mendis, quibus passim Neapolitana scatebat editio, emendati, primumque in Germania in lucem editi.

Hanoviae [Hanau]: Apud Guilielmum Antonium, impensis Petri Fischeri fr., 1593. First published in Vico Equense (Naples) in 1586. Title page in red and black. With: Porta, Giambattista della. Phytognomonica. Francofurti: Apud Ionnem Wechelum & Petrum Fischerum consortes, 1591.

This work describes the science of "Physiognomy," that is, of discovering a person's temperment or character by studying outward appearances. There are plates, for example, showing both a cow's face and a man's face which looks like a cow, accompanied by textual comparisons between the temperaments of the two.

Man’s Face Versus Bull’s Face


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